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Religion Encourages Gullibility

Posted by on 07/09/2009

To be gullible is to be easily deceived. It is the tendency to believe what we are told, without sufficient evidence, in circumstances that make it necessary for there to be evidence for the account to be accepted in normal circumstances. Now that’s a good definition, and you are welcome to look up ‘gullible’ in any dictionary.

If you say you were almost run over crossing the street, I will probably believe you, because I can’t figure out a good reason why you’d make that up, or be mistaken in what you think happened. But if you say an angel, or some other divine intervention saved your life, I’d be gullible if I believed you without any evidence, even if you were my best friend and you’d never been known to tell a lie, because what you are telling me is your account of what you think happened, and that might differ substantially from reality.

The furthest I can go without being gullible is to believe that perhaps you think that is what happened to you.

We all like to believe that we have a handle on reality, that we are not getting things wrong, and that we know the reasons why we believe what we believe. But the reflective person realises there are times that they have reached the wrong conclusions in the past, and held false beliefs. We all experience the time when an insight into someone’s personality reverses our previously held view of them. Or we find something we thought had been stolen. Oops, the plumber’s mate is not a thief after all! Or we learn something that makes us change our mind about a prejudice we hold dearly, or we learn a fact about physics that fundamentally changes something we believed to be true. And how often do we believe something for no good reason other than we want to believe that thing? We are all guilty of a level of gullibility.

We can extrapolate from that – the truth of any matter does not depend even the slightest on how strongly or dearly we hold that belief. We have to be more discriminating and examine our own interpretations of the evidence.

Personal belief is always suspect. Just as it is impossible to know another person’s thoughts from their actions or words, and we can thus believe they had a vindictive or benevolent motive when none was intended, we can easily misinterpret the meaning behind the events and experiences of our own lives, and reach the wrong conclusions. The trouble is that our perceptions depend very much on our existing personal beliefs, preconceptions, previous experiences, and background. Different people interpret the same events in many different ways, and we each react differently to the same event.

So it’s not whether we believe in something that counts, it’s how we come to that belief. Thinking skills are involved.

But back to gullibility, if you wrote a report about something you believed, and I read it 2000 years later and believed it, I’d be gullible. I’d be believing you with no way of knowing how you came to the beliefs you reported, what your agenda was, how accurate your reporting was, how you were affected by personal prejudices, education, superstition, poor judgement, whether or not you cared about truth, and whether or not I was reading an accurate report of what you wrote.

If someone else wrote about it fifty or three hundred years after you died, and I read that account later, in translation, and I believed that account, I’d be even more gullible for putting my trust in what someone thought about something he or she had heard from someone else. Ever played the game of Chinese Whispers?

Anyone else who believed the same things would be equally gullible, and would deserve no more respect for that belief than I would deserve myself.

To further clarify this point, if believing in something because someone else believes it, tells us it, or writes a book about it is good judgement, then we should believe everything that all other people believe, tell us, or write books about, for the same reason—that it would be good judgement. So we’d have to believe someone who said they were a horse, God incarnate, a chicken, or a ghost. There is no reason to pick and choose when someone else’s word is enough proof for us.

The point is not that we should disbelieve everything everyone tells us, but that we have to use our own judgement to consider the situation that brought about their beliefs on the matter, and whether we should adopt those beliefs ourselves, in the same way that we need to use good judgement in daily life to consider the real meaning behind the experiences we have. Paranoia distorts our beliefs in a way that is obvious to observers, but in ways that are less obvious many other things distort our beliefs in ways that can lead us to adopt the wrong conclusions from our thoughts.

It has already been established that if we believe what we are told, without sufficient evidence, in circumstances that make it necessary for there to be evidence for the account to be accepted in normal circumstances, we are gullible by definition. Therefore, since there is no evidence for believing the claims of religions, or the writings or hearsay of those religions, or of people who claim religious experiences, those who do believe them are by definition, gullible.

To use the logic of syllogism developed by Socrates:

To believe things without evidence is to be gullible.
Religious people believe things without evidence.
Therefore religious people are gullible.

To take the argument back to the original point, most religions don’t want you questioning their core beliefs. This is clear from the language they use. They don’t say, “Go home and think about this, look for evidence of supernatural intervention in the scientific literature, and find good solid proof that the book we are putting our faith in is providing an accurate depiction of things that really happened. Find other reports by the same authors which show that this really important thing we are saying was written by people with a thirst for knowledge and a passion for truth.”

Instead they say, “Have faith. Open your heart. See if it feels real to you.”

Again, we’ve already established that what feels real to us is no kind of evidence at all that the thing is real. It feels real to some people that they are dogs, butterflies, or gods, and these people can be found in mental institutions worldwide except for in those countries where they kill such people, or worship them, or kill them and then worship them.

Feelings are entirely subjective. Getting people to believe what they feel without external evidence is simply encouraging gullibility, and that’s a bad thing about religion.

2 Responses to Religion Encourages Gullibility

  1. ian_g

    I don’t think gullibility has an effect on IQ as I have friends who have no common sense and have been known to follow or believe blindly but they are also some of the smartest people i know…

  2. John Bremner

    There is a question about gullibility here which is: Are gullible people less intelligent than sceptical people? To know the answer we’d have to test the IQ of people found to be gullible against the IQ of people who showed themselves to be sceptical. The answer lies in the data. And there will be other indications – for example, gullible people are clearly more likely to (following the definition of gullibility) come to a belief based on insufficient information. So they can jump to the conclusion that some event has been arranged by their deity, instead of thinking the matter through, and realising the event was arranged by their spouse in the middle of the night…
    John